Finding Eye, Hatshepsut
I’ll never forget my first trip to Egypt. From moment one, I was drawn in by the country’s awe-inspiring architecture, its epic folklore, and of course, its longstanding connections to perfume. It was during that trip I was introduced to the stories of Hatshepsut and her rather unconventional rise to power. I was instantly hooked (the female heroic, the gender nonconformity, the expansion of trade…) and have been eagerly working on a fragrance concept ever since. Below are just some of my initial notes and ideas from the evolution of the fragrance brief for Eye, Hatshepsut, a scent inspired by her refusal to conform to the expectations of gender and her ability to always overcome the seemingly impossible.
Like Christopher Street and Asphalt Rainbow, Eye, Hatshepsut continues the CM mission to challenge gender norms in olfaction. This fragrance draws inspiration from Hatshepsut’s masterful manipulation of the gender narrative on her path to power (a story recorded on the walls of her temple at Dayr al-Bahri). The structure of the fragrance takes shape from the various depictions of Hatshepsut as a female figure in male dress, or assuming traditionally masculine roles. It juxtaposes softer, sweeping floral arcs with starker, contrasting resinous edges, blending them together against the backdrop of the crystalline sands of the Sahara. From beauty ritual to royal ceremony, it is an olfactive reflection of Eye, Hatshepsut.
Who was Hatshepsut?
Now considered a queer icon, Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1507–1458 BC) is best remembered for how, during her rise to power, she reappropriated the traditions and styles of her male pharaoh predecessors while still maintaining a distinctly feminine mystique. This she did in both presentation (sometimes wearing the kilt, headdress, and false beard of tradition) and in commissioned likeness (rounded, curvier statues and depictions). Regarded as “the first great woman of record,” she reigned during the Middle Kingdom for 22 years, overseeing a period of great wealth and prosperity for the Egyptian peoples, mostly due to the reestablishment of trade with neighboring Punt and Nubia. She bears the distinction of being the only female of Egyptian blood to have ever been named full-fledged pharaoh.
Remnants of Hatshepsut’s legacy still stand throughout the Nile region: Dayr al-Bahri, her great temple, welcomes you at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings; her red granite obelisk towers high above the skies at Karnak; and the spiced and incensed goods from the lands of Nubia and Punt waft throughout the tented-streets of the Egyptian bazaars, harkening back to the great trade expansion she secured for her empire. And there, in the shadows and corridors of her greatest accomplishments is where the first part of the olfactive narrative of Eye, Hatshepsut begins.
What was life like through her eyes?
She was born Hatshepsitou, daughter and only child of Thutmose I and his primary wife Ahmose. She was only 12 when her father died. After his death, she was married off to Thutmose II, her half brother from a lesser wife, becoming queen and principal wife. This was seen as a means of legitimizing Thutmose II’s claim to the throne. After 15 years, Thutmose II also died. The two had no male heirs together, only a daughter, and Thutmose III, a child fathered by Thutmose II with the concubine Isis, was still an infant. Hatshepsut therefore assumed the role of co-regent. After three successful years in power, she officially declared herself the rightful pharaoh of Egypt.
She did this by playing a masterful game of political myth building. Hatshepsut effectively rewrote the narrative of her birth twice over. In the first version, she spoke of her father’s desire for her to follow in his footsteps, a means of bringing on board his loyal followers. From there, she spun her myth: a newer divine version of her lineage and birth. Hatshepsut claimed she was really the child of Amun-Ra, who appeared to her mother Ahmose “in a flood of light and perfume.” She was therefore ordained by god to rule.
“Ka-Ma-Ra, the Horus of Gold, Bestower the Years, Conqueror of all Lands, Vivifier of Hearts, Chief Spouse of Amun, and the Mighty One.”
It was at this time in her history that she adopted the name Hatshepsut, the male form of her given name. She also began wearing the shendyt kilt, the nemes headdress (with its uraeus cobra and khat headcloth), and the postiche false beard. This is reflected in the many stone sculptures of her scattered throughout Egypt and Nubia, depicted with muscular arms on a curvier body form, and a more rounded face dressed in the traditional garb of her male predecessors: a beautifully queer convergence of gender traits meant to honor the traditions of the past while respecting the present state of affairs.
For 22 years, Hatshepsut’s rule brought about a rise in wealth and prosperity. She opened trade with Punt, fought on the battlefields of Nubia, and added architectural wonders to Luxor and Thebes. Controversy surrounds these marvels, however, as she too is rumored to have had an affair with their architect, Senenmut (with some going as far as to speculate that her daughter was actually their love child). Hatshepsut lived into her mid-40’s, and is thought to have died from cancer, possibly caused by carcinogenic lotion used to treat eczema (made from nutmeg, palm, fatty acids, tars, and resins).
After her death, Thutmose III and his son, Amenhotep II, ordered the defacing or destruction of Hatshepsut’s statuary, attempting to scrub away her legacy. For this very reason, Hatshepsut was unknown to historians until the 19th century when the hieroglyphs of her temple were finally decoded.
To see life through her eyes is to see Egypt like no other time in its history.
More Egyptian Scents & Symbolism
After tracing her history, fragrance construction began by examining Hatshepsut’s original kyphi. In Ancient Egypt, kyphi was a compound incense formulation used for ceremonial, religious, and healing practices. Think of it as the sacred air of royalty and divinity; every pharaoh had their own version crafted. Kyphi was a constant presence in the Egyptian temples and palaces, an olfactive blessing referencing the “breath of god.” It was both worn and burned. The recipe for Hatshepsut’s kyphi reflected the spoils of her trade successes, made from the list of materials in the image above, as well as a few other shall-we-say less than friendly organic substances (i.e. ground beetle shells).
From her kyphi, we turned to other elements from Hatshepsut’s life as a way of modernizing this ancient recipe. For example, the scent of smoke was added to the fragrance to mimic the burning of kyphi while simultaneously blending, blurring, and lifting each of the other materials in the formulation: a trail of smoke that first appears in the top notes, wraps around the body in the heart, and then grows to a more corseted jacket of haze in the base. The smoke carries with it scents from the banks of the Nile that then dissolve across the sands of the Sahara. Formulaically speaking, this meant a slow, controlled progression of materials, not a booming loud church-inspired cloud of resinous fumes. This progression was further emphasized by adding in the waxy, animalic scent of tallow candles.
Of course, no story of Egypt and tradition can be absent lotus and papyrus. Lotus was symbolic of creation and life. The sun god, Amun-Ra, was said to have risen from the petals of the lotus blossom (as the blue lotus flower of Egypt opens and closes with the rising and setting of the sun). Conversely, papyrus represented strength. It provided a canvas for the proud Egyptian tradition of gathering and recording knowledge a la scrolls housed within the walls of the great library at Alexandria. Lotus and papyrus were the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt, united together through the ankh (balance and harmony).
Inspiration for shape and structure for Eye, Hatshepsut was also found in the wadjet (Eye of Horus), a symbol of protection and healing. Each piece of the wadjet was representative of one of the six human senses. Wadjet was also used as a way to denote fractions (see reference image). The fractions that make up the wadjet equal 63/64, with a missing unknown 64th component (thought to be Thoth’s magical breath from the myth of Osiris’s resurrection). When the wadjet is the right eye, it represents the sun and the cycle of birth-death-rebirth.
Guided by wadjet, the more traditional elements of Hatshepsut’s story were then married with pieces from her daily fragrance rituals into a new harmony. A second reference to this eye structure can be found in the scent of kohl, a dark substance Egyptians applied to the eyes as a means of adornment and sun protection. Kohl was made from grinding antimony, malachite, and black galena, and worn by all genders (though the styling of the eyes varied). Daily beauty rituals also included things such as honeying of the skin, and incensing of the body (considered a blessing of the gods as well as further protection from the desert elements).
Finally, we examined the practice of mummification: a fascinating process of preservation making use of many olfactive materials. First natron, an Egyptian salt, was applied to the skin. The organs were then removed to alabaster jars, and the body cavities filled with flowers, spices and herbs. Then the body was wrapped in linen treated with fir and pine resins, beeswax, myrrh, palm, wine, cassia, camphor, and other substances known for their drying or anti-bacterial properties. By introducing materials from mummification into the formulation, the idea was to complete the circle metaphor of life-death-rebirth so inherent to Egyptian creation.
At the end of the process, we had looked for fragrances from Hatshepsut’s life through all angles, before bringing them together to form the olfactive story of Eye, Hatshepsut: an homage to her life, her legacy, and her legend.
“My fragrance is like a divine breath; my scent reaches as far as the land of Punt; my skin is that of pure gold…I have no equal amongst the gods who were since the world was.”
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